Cults have the darndest names.
For the TO THE NINES AWARD (Part one)
“What do you mean my entrance hasn’t been secured?”
Damon presses the heavy black mobile to his ear with one hand, the other white-knuckled around a steel pole that bisects the chimera vehicle. Petrochemical air tickles his throat, blood-pumping head-spin as they jolt past unreflective black puddles in the road.
“I mean, Damon, that the compound won’t let journalists inside. You’ll have to find another way in.”
A swarm of brightly coloured motorbikes engulfs them, but the driver seems unconcerned. Damon’s jet-lag rears as nausea in the heady smell of spice and sewerage on every corner.
“There isn’t another way. Bloody hell Jordan, what am I supposed to do now?” Damon shouts above the traffic.
The vehicle swings sideways, stopping abruptly at the curb.
“We are here sir,” says the driver, grinning around tobacco-stained teeth.
“Hang on a sec Jordan.” Damon gropes in his pocket for the obscene wad of brightly coloured cash. The pink ones, $ 10,000 each, are basically worthless.
He stumbles out from the padded seat.
“I can hardly hear you Damon. Call me when you get into the hotel. You’re staying at the Banana Palm right?”
“Yep. Ok. Bye.”
Damon shoves the clunky device back into his pocket and watches the driver depart in the half-motorbike, half-shorn off van. A new sound adds to the density of noise: a bodily crush of sweat and voice.
He scans for Banana Palm Springs. Words he can’t read undulate across the building facades, gaudy colours faded by dust and sun. It should be number nine.
The address before him is number nine, but it looks like a shop. Damon pushes his head through the fluttering plastic strips and sees rows of shelves, stacked with plastic packaging and irregularly shaped fruit. He retreats.
The beginning of lethargic desperation settles through Damon’s body. With a grunt he heaves his luggage onto its fragile plastic wheels, pushing through the press of bodies. The smell of frying meat in open air mixes with guttered excrement, turning his stomach in circles.
Nothing looks like a hotel. Reaching the end of the block, he walks back. One of the suitcase wheels jolts out of its socket. The bag becomes instantly heavier.
Back in front of number nine, the deli. Little figures line up behind the grimy window, animals carved from soap or bone. Damon sighs and goes inside.
A big hairy man fills the space behind the counter, meaty arms planted on the bench. His skin is strangely pale, betraying the incursion of something Eastern-European in his genes. Damon approaches, past Dutch ginger biscuits, paracetamol and spotted yellow apples.
“Hallo!” shouts the man, bearing white teeth.
“Hello. I’m looking for the Banana Palm Springs Hotel. It’s supposed to be at number nine.”
“Yes, number nine. But not this street. Next street.” The man waves his arm in a manner that encompasses all the cardinal directions.
Damon groans inwardly.
The shelf behind the man’s head contains more carved animals, simple child-like shapes approximating deer, tigers and dogs. The man sees him looking.
“I make these,” he says, puffing out his chest. “Was going to be a carver.”
“Yeah?” Damon looks instead at the assorted items on the counter, sweets and cigarettes and fruit, hoping to escape a story.
“Yes. When I was little boy, had great carving gift. Come from village in North. I come to city to sell, but already many carvings here. They make on mass, churning out of water.”
Damon nods, his mind on a comfortable hotel bed and a glass of whisky. And calling Jordan.
“Say, do you know anything about Aviva?” Damon asks, hoping to derail further reminiscence.
The man’s eyes narrow.
“Aviva, yes. A cult they say. People go in, never come out. Big fenced area, just outside city. Dangerous.”
“I need to get in there.”
The man’s bushy eyebrows raise. “Why?”
“I’m a journalist.”
The man laughs. “Then will be even harder for you. Only members allowed. Leave all belongings at entrance, they say, go in, never come out.”
An idea springs to life in Damon’s mind. He puts a packet of paracetamol on the counter and hands over three pink notes. “Thank you,” he says.
“Do not go to that place.”
Damon smiles and heaves his luggage around. As he leaves he sees the man shaking his head, stroking one of the soap animal carvings.
Damon buzzes with the solution he can now offer Jordan. He’s going deep, deep undercover. He’s about to join a cult.